Half of Journalists Arrested Since Myanmar Coup Remain in Detention

Observers say the junta has set media freedom in the country back nearly a dozen years.
Half of Journalists Arrested Since Myanmar Coup Remain in Detention Thann Htike Aung (L), a video journalist with Mizzima Media who was later arrested, holds a video camera as he covers the funeral of woman who was shot during a rally against the military coup in Naypyidaw, February 21, 2021.

Nearly half of the 87 journalists arrested by Myanmar’s junta in the five months since its staged a coup on Feb. 1 remain in detention, mostly on charges of defamation, prompting their colleagues, family members, and media watchdogs to call for their immediate release Thursday.

According to reporting by RFA’s Myanmar Service, 31 reporters were released prior to June 30 when the junta declared a general amnesty and freed 2,300 prisoners from the country’s jails, including another 14 journalists. The Ayeyarwaddy Times’ Maubin correspondent Aung Mya Than—one of the 14 freed in the amnesty—was rearrested on July 10, leaving a total of 43 domestic and international reporters currently in detention.

In most cases, authorities charged reporters with defamation of the military, under Section 505 (a) of the country’s penal code. Other charges included alleged violations of the Telecommunications Act, the Immigration Act, the Unlawful Association Act, the Insubordination Act and the Natural Disaster Prevention Law.

At least 26 reporters are currently in hiding after authorities issued warrants for their arrest, while many others have been forced to stay with friends or family because junta forces have reportedly raided their homes.

Taken together, reporters who have been targeted for arrest work for a total of 49 domestic and international media outlets.

A campaigner for media freedom who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal, told RFA that authorities have no right to arrest or prosecute journalists under any circumstance.

“There is a lot of conflict because of the current political situation in Myanmar and there is a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic underway as well,” they said.

“In such a situation, only journalists can present all the necessary information to the general public. The arrest and detention of journalists undermines freedom of the press, which in turn impacts the public interest. It is necessary to reconsider all actions taken against journalists.”

Among the 43 reporters still in detention are five correspondents for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB News) who were sentenced to prison terms of between one month and three years.

DVB correspondent Min Nyo was beaten and arrested while covering a news event in Bago region’s Pyay township in March and later sentenced to three years in the local prison.

His wife Moe Moe told RFA that she had not been able to see him in the four months since his arrest and pleaded with authorities to release him.

“When Ko Min Nyo was arrested, he showed them his reporter identity card and their news agency was not closed at that time,” she said.

“He was doing his broadcast at the time of his arrest. In fact, he was completely innocent.”

Some reporters who were later released told RFA they had been beaten or tortured during their arrest and again at the police station or interrogation center.

Soe Yar Zar Tun, a freelance reporter who was freed in the June 30 amnesty, told RFA that journalists arrested for defamation were humiliated and discriminated against at the notorious Insein Prison on the outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city Yangon.

“We were punished for not assuming the ‘ponzan’ [half standing, half sitting stress] position meant for [regular criminals],” he said.

“Also, the cells that criminals stayed in were a lot better than ours. They had plenty of water for bathing and clean toilets, but we didn’t. They also had fans, water coolers, and TVs … We had to buy our own stuff. We also had to do a lot of weeding, but they could even escape hard work if they paid [the prison officials].”

Members of the media gather outside Kamaryut Court in Yangon during a hearing in the case of Associated Press photographer Thein Zaw, who was arrested as he covered a demonstration against the military coup, March 12, 2021. AFP
Members of the media gather outside Kamaryut Court in Yangon during a hearing in the case of Associated Press photographer Thein Zaw, who was arrested as he covered a demonstration against the military coup, March 12, 2021. AFP
Media outlets shuttered

Myanmar’s military says its takeover was warranted because former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November 2020 general elections as the result of voter fraud. The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and violently responded to widespread protests, killing 912 people and arresting nearly 5,270, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Shortly after the coup, the military closed the offices of media outlets DVB News, Mizzima News Agency, Myitkyina Journal, Tachileik News Agency, Seven Days, Myanmar Now, Modern and The 74 Media, as well as nearly 40 online news agencies.

Cherry Htike, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tachileik News Agency, said the junta shut down the media and arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted journalists because its leaders wanted to prevent reporting on rights violations.

“The fact that we journalists are arrested and charged under various laws is because they want to spread lies and cover up what is really happening,” said Htike, who has continued to report despite having gone into hiding after a warrant was issued to arrest her for alleged defamation.

“The junta does not dare to let people know what they are doing. It is common knowledge that journalists are being oppressed and the junta is trying to block access to public information,” she added.

“Despite the junta preventing us journalists from doing our work, we have gained a lot of public support during this period. It’s been a real encouragement for us.”

Soe Ya, editor-in-chief of Delta News Agency, told RFA that there is no difference between journalists being arrested and not being arrested because of the current lack of democratic rights and freedom of the press.

“Once again, we cannot see a future for the freedom of the press under the junta when there are no guarantees for the security of journalists,” he said.

“Reporters have to pay more attention to their security than to reporting news. Our work is becoming very difficult. In fact, by human rights standards, there’s [no freedom] left. We are also very worried for those who are currently imprisoned without the protection of their rights as journalists.”

Promoting a junta narrative

Meanwhile, reporters told RFA that journalists have been arrested and news outlets harassed for not portraying the junta in a flattering light when covering official press conferences.

They said the situation had worsened since the junta appointed Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun as Deputy Information Minister and reorganized the Myanmar Media Council—nearly all members of which resigned after the military took power and imposed restrictions on access to information.

Myint Kyaw, a former member of the council, said it is likely to become a rubber stamp body for the regime.

“It will no longer be a free entity ...  [or] the kind of organization that represents professionalism, media freedom and ethics,” he said.

“It's already getting really bad now. If this goes on, the number of media outlets that will remain resilient in the long run could be further reduced. We will hear about more arrests as it gets worse. And soon we will be back where we were before 2010 [when Myanmar switched to a civilian government].”

Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries in the 2021 edition of its annual World Press Freedom Index and singled out junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as among the world’s 37 worst leaders in terms of media crackdowns. The country has fallen in position every year since it was ranked 131st in 2017.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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